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The Power of Smell in American Literature

Odor, Affect, and Social Inequality


Daniela Babilon

Offering a thoroughly new approach to American literature, this book examines the literary representation of smell regarding its impact on establishing and subverting power structures. Although smell carries an enormous affective potential, it has been largely – but unjustly – overlooked in literary and cultural studies. Through her innovative close readings of works by authors such as Melville, Whitman, Equiano, Wilkins Freeman, Faulkner, Morrison, or Ellison, the author shows how smell stereotypes are used to discriminate against people and how odor references serve to undermine oppressive power structures. For this purpose, the author traces the cultural history of odor and combines insights from fields such as critical race, gender, intersectionality, trauma, and affect theories.

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“In the use of the olfactory apparatus Americans are culturally underdeveloped,” Edward T. Hall postulates in The Hidden Dimension (45). As a brief consideration of aspects readily reveals, such as the extensive use of deodorants in the U.S., the status of the sense of smell in relation to vision and hearing, or a comparison to other cultures or time periods, this statement is largely well founded.1 Nonetheless, one particular aspect of smell continues to be of great relevance for American life: even if it is not always consciously registered, the social element of odor impacts heavily on social relations. “Often delimited as a mere ‘biological’ sense, scents are, on the contrary, subtly involved in just about every aspect of culture,” the editor of The Smell Culture Reader, Jim Drobnick, aptly asserts—“from the construction of personal identity and the defining of social status to the confirming of group affiliation and the transmission of tradition” (“Olfactocentrism” 1). Since olfaction carries an enormous affective potential, smell attributions attain particular significance in the light of social power relations. Odors, and odor memories in particular, open up gateways into the human psyche, into the unconscious realm of the affects, as well as the emotionally charged repertoire of social prejudice. Frequently, social “alterity is defined as a physical characteristic,” Drobnick underscores, with olfaction being “the means to corporealize dislike and a prominent excuse for expressions of racism, sexism, classism and xenophobia” (“Odorphobia” 14).

Smell is thus a subtle but highly powerful...

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